WASHINGTON, D.C. — There is not much talk openly about it here, but the steady decline in the number of general aviation pilots has some GA advocates concerned.
General aviation has had several boom and bust periods. From the time the Wright brothers’ first flight until the first commercial airline began flying from St. Petersburg to Tampa, Florida, in 1914, all aviation in the United States was general aviation. World War I brought a spike in interest. Another followed Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Interest peaked again after World War II. There were other more minor growth periods, but each was followed by a decline.
The number of pilots peaked in 1980 at 872,071. In the official 2011 figure, this dropped to 618,660, a loss of more than a quarter of a million. That included all pilots. Private pilot numbers peaked in 1980 with 357,479 and dropped to 195,650 in 2011. Where did these 161,827 pilots go?
Is it money causing many to leave? Yes, in some cases, but many used airplanes are cheaper than luxury automobiles. Boats fill marinas throughout the country. Money is an excuse, not a reason.
Perhaps a more productive question to ask is: Are we selling the wrong thing?
We are trying to sell people on flying, and only a few people actually like flying. Think about it: Only a few people who learn to drive actually love driving. Not everyone who buys a boat wants to be a captain. People buy these kinds of vehicles and learn to operate them for what they can do with them.
Arthur “Red” Motley, a former publisher of Parade Sunday magazine and later president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said: “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.”
We need to show the public what they can do with an airplane — learning to fly will be just incidental to that. This calls for changing public opinions.
Abraham Lincoln said it this way: “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without public sentiment, nothing can succeed.”
In the 1930s when women began draping scarfs over their heads instead of wearing hats, the sale of women’s hats fell. A new profession — public relations — was getting started and the hat manufacturers called in Ivy Lee, a pioneer public relations practitioner. He did not write press releases about hats. Instead, he organized a benefit fashion show featuring the most prominent women of the day. Each fashion ensemble had a hat. Newspapers and newsreels featured these and women across the country in big cities and small began wearing hats again.
Playboy magazine executives needed to buy a jet aircraft and wanted to be sure their subscribers and newsstand buyers would not consider this a plush benefit for executives only. I wrote two articles for the magazine, each describing how companies involved in activities readers enjoyed used jet aircraft to better serve the interests of their customers. I was told management did not get criticized for making the purchase.
When Phil Boyer was president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association he saw the need for a jet-powered aircraft to better serve members in all parts of the country so association officials could deal with local issues, as well as national. Still, many pilots scraping to get enough money to rent an airplane for a couple of hours might get angry at their dues being spent for this. He asked me to prepare a public relations program. I did, and he later told me only four members complained after seeing how the jet could get the staff where they are needed more quickly and at one expense, rather than a series of individual airline tickets and delays that would reduce their time — and effectiveness — on local issues.
These are but a few of the public relations programs that show how PR can change attitudes. Unfortunately, many company offices are now “communications” departments. Too often, this approach means that the companies tell the public only what management wants them to know and what they believe will sell the product or service. People working in these communication departments are often too afraid to disagree top management.
For many years, when I worked on newspapers, my superior was Randolph Hearst, son of the legendary publisher William Randolph Hearst. One day Randy was talking to me in his office. He said “Charlie, you are the only person on this newspaper who will disagree with me because my name is Hearst. I like that. If you have two persons who agree all the time, you have one too many persons.”
William Piper, Sr. commented one time that it took the public 50 years before it realized that highways should not run through towns, but around them. This was changed in the 1950s by a decision by President Eisenhower to build a highway system and the efforts of the Hearst newspaper chain to change public opinions. Bill Lampe, a Hearst editor, was put in charge of coordinating the efforts of the publications. He told me it took 18 months. The first six months was used to scare the hell out of commuters and travelers; the second six months was used to say it must be fixed; and the third six months was spent getting national, state, and local officials to start acting.
Fifty years ago general aviation manufacturers determined there were more than 5,000 small companies in the Washington-Baltimore area who could profit from an airplane. Did they tell them that? No. They tried to get people to learn to fly.
Are we selling learning to fly or what an airplane will do? Are we selling the sizzle or the steak? I have had a pilot’s license since 1953 and did much in business and personal life. Flying was necessary to do those things.
I know there will be those who disagree with what I have written. However, to copy the title of a column I wrote over a period of time many years ago — “Them’s my Sentiments.”